The 9 Best Live Albums of the Modern Era

A celebration of Dylan, Depeche Mode, Radiohead and more

By Kirk Miller

 
Depeche Mode 101
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14 March 2019

Thirty years ago this week, Depeche Mode released 101, a documentary film and double album that proved that the group was more than just a slightly more energetic Kraftwerk.

There was an energy and a warmth on display that was lacking from the group’s brilliant but coldly precise studio records. Arrangements were changed, singalongs encouraged and deep album cuts were explored.

If you were there, it was heaven. If you weren’t — well, a great live album should place you in that moment, preferably a moment when a band or act is at its peak.

We asked our staff for their favorite live records. Their responses below:

101 by Depeche Mode 
The pioneering electronic band didn’t become mainstream until 1990’s Violator, but 101 saw the group arguably at its creative peak ... and the fanbase at its most fervent. Recorded during the 101st and final show of their 1988 tour at the sold-out (!) Rose Bowl in Pasadena, David Gahan, Martin Gore and co. proved that a synth-based act could command a live stage: the band-stopping, nearly endless crowd singalong to “Everything Counts” still produces chills. Bonus: It also makes for quite a gorgeous documentary, as filmed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker (who chronicled Bob Dylan in his heyday for Don’t Look Back). — Kirk Miller

Sinatra at the Sands
In 50 years, I wouldn’t be surprised if the legacy of Frank Sinatra was diluted to a five-song set played at weddings and on New York sightseeing tours. Thankfully, this album — recorded over seven nights at the now-demolished Sands Hotel and Casino in Vegas — preserves the legend in a way you’ll never see on greatest hits compilations: as the ballbuster, the sot, the dad-joker and legitimately gripping vocalist. From the sheer volume of sappy covers, you’d be forgiven for thinking “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” is a flat-out bad song. But here, Sinatra offers the definitive rendition, as he does on many other standards. He’s not the only star, though, as Count Basie lead the orchestra and a 32-year-old Quincy Jones arranged and conducted. Oh, and “The Tea Break” is the original “spill the tea.” Don’t @ me. — Alex Lauer

Live by Alison Krauss & Union Station
Some say this album reached double platinum status on the back of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Sure, that helped, especially since five of the six musicians on Live were featured on that cash cow and reprise the songs here; Krauss sings “Down to the River to Pray” and Dan Tyminski does “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow.” But from where I’m sitting, the thanks goes to Krauss’s mythical golden pipes. Unfortunately, she’s a victim of a bluegrass cliche where people (read: men) won’t necessarily listen to her music on a daily basis, but they’ll praise the raw authenticity of a live performance when they see it. Well, here’s your daily dose of Krauss, ya dweebs. — AL

Live at the Ritz by Guns N' Roses
Admittedly not an official release — you can find it (unofficially) on video, and I certainly remember it from showings on MTV — this is still GNR at its prime. The band was just breaking big with Appetite for Destruction but hadn’t themselves self-destructed; Axl Rose was sinewy and happy (Axl to audience: “Don’t ever give up hope, you have to just hold and believe”...who is this man?), drummer and secret weapon Steven Adler looked healthy, and Slash, well, he’s always good. Recorded in New York in early ‘88, there’s no bloat here: The band blitzes through most of Appetite, throws in an Aerosmith cover and absolutely slays “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Highlight: “Paradise City,” which starts with a beaming Axl toying with Slash’s hat, then later jumping into the crowd and having his Thin Lizzy shirt ripped off by kids in the pit. And he ain’t mad. — Kirk Miller

Paul Simon's Concert in the Park
Depending on who you ask, somewhere between 50,000 and 600,000 people came out to see Paul Simon do his groovy thing on Central Park's 10-acre lawn on August 15th of 1991. Despite having two parents who ride hard for Simon & Garfunkel (no doubt the reason I love these songs so much), I was not among the throngs that day. Nor was Garfunkel, however, who famously told the New York Times of not being asked to play, "I'm not good enough to be invited." But I'll bet every time ol' Art hears the roar of the crowd when Paul sings "counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike..." he feels the exact same way I do — thankful that the moment existed and was recorded so that it can be experienced vicariously, but simultaneously overcome with the sort of nostalgic melancholy that comes from really, really wishing you had been there. — Danny Agnew

Jay-Z: Unplugged by Jay-Z
Jay-Z used to be a very good rapper, and this live recording of some of his greatest hits occurred when he was fresh off the release of The Blueprint. But wait, there's more! Jay is backed by The Roots and pulls out features from the likes of Mary J. Blige and Pharrell. I will forever be a sucker for live singing at rap shows, and apparently about 600k other people are as well, because that's how many albums it sold. — Eli London

HAARP by Muse
Every music junkie can tell you about the period their life when they “started listening to better music.” For me it was the summers of 2007 and 2008, when [redacted; he's a lawyer now] and I would smoke copious amounts of marijuana and then drive around swapping new music for two hours. Muse was on heavy rotation, and while I would never credit them as being one of the better bands I listen to, they certainly helped lead me to those bands. For me, their seminal achievement will always be this 70-minute live album, which they recorded in front of a staggering 180,000 people at a newly reopened Wembley Stadium in 2006. Frontman Matt Bellamy is at his histrionic best throughout, from the snarling vocal breakdown on opener “Knights of Cydonia” to a pyrotechnic guitar solo on fan-favorite “New Born.” — Walker Loetscher

I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings by Radiohead
The English band's only live album is not a record of one single gig; rather, it comprises eight songs selected from a variety of shows over the course of their 2001 tour. And despite the short runtime, it's got it all. What distinguishes the album — beyond mid-catalogue standouts like “Everything in Its Rights Place,” “Idiotheque” and cheekily placed intro track “National Anthem” — is the inclusion of a pair of bona fide Easter eggs: a rearrangement of “Like Spinning Plates” that swaps out the backwards vocals and synths for a somber piano ballad, and album closer “True Love Waits” ... a then unreleased song that finally found a home on 2016's A Moon Shaped Pool. — Walker Loetscher

Bootleg Series Vol. 6: Live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall by Bob Dylan
To anyone willing to listen, most notably my wife, who isn’t necessarily willing to listen as much as she is forced to listen by virtue of being stuck in a moving car with me all the time, I will yammer on about how there’s a sweet spot in the life of a song, when live versions of it sound their best. It’s not right when the songs were written, at which point they can be a little too close to the studio versions; and it’s not years later, when the artist has grown sick of playing them. It is, rather, right in the middle — when they’ve been performed enough that it’s become second nature for the artist while still maintaining enough of the original spark so as not to seem rote. In the grand scheme of Bob Dylan’s career, Volume 6 of the Bootleg Series fits that bill perfectly. Recorded in New York City on Halloween of 1964, the 19-song set is about as comfortable and in command as you’ll ever hear him. It was nearly four years since he'd first started performing, but still two years until boredom would compel him to go electric. He’s so at home on the stage and within each song that even as he effortlessly tweaks the occasional melody or allows a stray giggle to slip out here and there, none of it ever distracts from — and in fact often amplifies — the impact of the material. I’d argue that if it’s possible to pinpoint “Dylan at his best,” this is it. — Mike Conklin

Photo:  Mute Film/Pennebaker Associates

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